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••• The International Writers Magazine: Chicago

Falling off the Wagon at the Chicago Lowrider Festival
• Todd Wells

The website for the Chicago Lowrider Festival has a video of highlights from last year's event. The video is fun to watch, and based on that my wife and I decided to take not only our own three children to the festival, but to bring her sister's family as well.

My brother-in-law is a car guy who likes tinkering. I thought a bunch of cars that have been trained to sit up and hop would be perfect, both for him and our kids. Many years ago, long before our kids arrived, my wife and I stopped going to Chicago's street festivals. They were all looking and sounding the same - long lines for a beer with too much head, vendors selling little beyond black t-shirts emblazoned with an assortment of stylized skulls, and mediocre entertainment without enough space for all the attendees to comfortably view the performance.

(Wait, did I say "comfortably view"? I meant to say "see anything at all").

But those festivals of my youth were on Chicago's affluent north side. The Lowrider Festival is in Chicago's decidedly working-class Pilsen neighborhood. Without knowing how or why I came up with this, I figured a festival in Pilsen with cars just had to be different.

It was not.

Skull t-shirts and foamy beer ruled the day. The festival is probably a winner for people who already have an affinity for lowriders. The place was packed with lovingly-maintained vintage cars that have been tricked out in some form or another. Many had the hoods up so the gearheads in the audience could analyze the engines and nod approvingly. And to be sure, many of the cars were entertaining, with the owners' senses of humor on display. The busty figurehead as a hubcap and the ancient pickup truck with oversized chrome rims and thin tires were good for a chuckle. But I'm not an existing lowrider fan, and after awhile, it just looked like a bunch of old cars. In fact, there was one Buick in particular that looked exactly like the piece-of-crap Buick my parents had when I was growing up, except this one had oversized chrome rims and thin tires.
Truck I held out hope for the dancing cars, but that was a let-down too. The cars didn't drive down the road while doing the lowrider jig - the performance took place in a parking lot which was closed off on three sides. The cars didn't even drive from their parking spots to the center of the lot where they did their shtick; they had to be pushed. After a car has undergone surgery for hopping enhancement, it loses the ability to go forward under its own power, I guess. That's what it looked like, anyway.
After rolling his car to center stage, the owner hooked up the hydraulic air-compression gizmo, and the lowrider bounced up and down for a minute or two. Then he and his friends pushed the vehicle back to its parking space, and the next car and its owner did the same thing. At least, I think that's what happened. The viewing area had a slight downward slope away from the performances, so only the first row of the audience could see what was going on. I had my son perched on my shoulders, and after a few rounds his legs were cutting off enough of my carotid artery that I thought it best to put him down and call it a day. I didn't even win any points with my brother-in-law. He told me as we were leaving, "Thanks for taking us here, It was a lot of fun. But I'm really more into performance cars."
"So there's no overlap between the two?" I asked.
"No, not really. I mean, they both have engines and wheels, but that's about it."
"Okay, no more street festivals." And this time I mean it.

© Todd Wells August 2017
todd at

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